Iran arrested a prominent former member of its national soccer team on Thursday over his criticism of the government as authorities grapple with nationwide protests that have cast a shadow over its competition at the World Cup.
The semiofficial Fars and Tasnim news agencies reported that Voria Ghafouri was arrested for “insulting the national soccer team and propagandizing against the government."
Ghafouri, who was not chosen to go to the World Cup, has been an outspoken critic of Iranian authorities throughout his career. He objected to a longstanding ban on women spectators at men's soccer matches as well as Iran's confrontational foreign policy, which has led to crippling Western sanctions.
More recently, he expressed sympathy for the family of a 22-year-old woman whose death while in the custody of Iran's morality police ignited the latest protests. In recent days he also called for an end to a violent crackdown on protests in Iran's western Kurdistan region.
The reports of his arrest came ahead of Friday’s World Cup match between Iran and Wales. At Iran’s opening match, a 6-2 loss to England, the members of the Iranian national team declined to sing along to their national anthem and some fans expressed support for the protests.
The protests were ignited by the Sept. 16 death of Mahsa Amini, a Kurdish woman arrested by the morality police in the capital, Tehran. They rapidly escalated into nationwide demonstrations calling for the overthrow of the Islamic Republic. The western Kurdish region of the country, where both Amini and Ghafouri are from, has been the epicenter of the protests. Shops were closed in the region on Thursday following calls for a general strike.
Iranian officials have not said whether Ghafouri's activism was a factor in not choosing him for the national team. He plays for the Khuzestan Foolad team in the southwestern city of Ahvaz.
The protests show no sign of waning, and mark one of the biggest challenges to Iran's ruling clerics since the 1979 Islamic Revolution that brought them to power. Rights groups say security forces have used unleashed live ammunition and bird shot on the protesters, as well as beating and arresting them, with much of the violence captured on video.
At least 442 protesters have been killed and more than 18,000 detained since the start of the unrest, according to Human Rights Activists in Iran, a group that has been monitoring the protests.
Authorities have blamed the unrest on hostile foreign powers, without providing evidence, and say separatists and other armed groups have attacked security forces. Human Rights Activists in Iran says at least 57 security personnel have been killed, while state media have reported a higher toll.
The protesters say they are fed up after decades of social and political repression, including a strict dress code imposed on women. Young women have played a leading role in the protests, stripping off the mandatory Islamic headscarf to express their rejection of clerical rule.
Some Iranians are actively rooting against their own team at the World Cup, associating it with rulers they view as violent and corrupt. Others insist the national team, which includes players who have spoken out on social media in solidarity with the protests, represents the country’s people.
The team’s star forward, Sardar Azmoun, who has been vocal about the protests online, was on the bench during the opening match. In addition to Ghafouri, two other former soccer stars have been arrested for expressing support for the protests.
Other Iranian athletes have also been drawn into the struggle.
Iranian rock climber Elnaz Rekabi competed without wearing the mandatory headscarf at an international competition in South Korea in October, a move widely seen as expressing support for the protests. She received a hero's welcome from protesters upon returning to Iran, even as she told state media the move was “unintentional” in an interview that may have been given under duress.
Earlier this month, Iran's football federation threatened to punish players on its beach soccer team after it defeated Brazil at an international competition in Dubai. One of the players had celebrated after scoring a goal by mimicking a female protester cutting off her hair.